Revitalizing the once hustling and bustling downtown Two Harbors that drew tourists by the boat and train load has long been a dream of city planners.
That dream may finally be coming true. Just a half a block from the railroad tracks bringing railroad passengers to town, and a stone’s throw from Agate Bay and its active ore docks, Frank McQuade is adding to the lively presence coming back to the waterfront.
Bookending the main block of historic downtown, McQuade’s two shops are sturdy additions to a street that has felt deserted in previous years.
His first shop McQuade’s Herbs, Spices and More opened in 2016 when McQuade returned to his hometown after climbing the culinary ladder in Kentucky. The specialty shop sells about 100 spices with original seasoning blends, a concept inspired by McQuade’s grandfather who runs a similar shop in Wisconsin. His other business is a recent addition: McQuade’s Pub and Grill.
With a storyline that never grows stale, McQuade started his restaurant career journey as a 16-year-old dishwasher in a North Shore resort, and absorbed all he could until he was eventually running a restaurant.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life,” McQuade said. “I wanted to cook more for fun and help other people cook.”
The massive sensory experience of competing spices hanging in the air is only rivaled by McQuade’s undeniable excitement and knowledge when talking about how spices and herbs at the shop.
But these days he’s turned that over to his mother who has taken up daily operations to free McQuade to turn his attention to his latest venture, McQuade’s Pub and Grill.
At the other end of the block on First Avenue the full bar and restaurant opened this summer after renovation that ranged from all new kitchen equipment to jazzing up the vintage stamped metal ceiling with fresh paint.
Giving himself short shrift, and at the same time capturing his spirit of fun and adventure that drive his entrepreneurial enterprises, McQuade admits learning from mistakes is one of his most valuable tools.
“We are pretty much a bunch of kids learning every day by finding what we’re doing wrong, and finally finding our groove,” he said.
Transforming the former bar to a 40-seat restaurant with a nimble menu of about 25 thoughtful items was admittedly frustrating at times, but McQuade noted his success with the spice shop kept him focused amid a thousand competing details.
Things learned along the way so far? Simplify for consistency and quality.
“I think what sets us apart from other restaurants along the shore is consistency, and we’ve found that moving to just one menu instead of a lunch and dinner menu will add to the quality meals we are giving customers,” McQuade said.
The restaurant is without pretense. Ask for a simple burger and you will get it. For the more adventurous, in the right season, an option of wild chanterelles or lobster mushrooms could be a welcome surprise.
While McQuade wants to expand the taste horizons of the region, he cites the most unusual item on the menu as Chicken Saltimbocca, a dish with an Italian pedigree that translates to “jumps in your mouth.”
Themed dinners built around beer, wine and whiskey pairings, along with reservation nights are also in the works.
A family restaurant vibe is McQuade’s focus, but if you find the owner behind the bar (and you probably will) you will quickly see his natural tendency to weave together tradition and innovation.
Just like at the spice shop, start asking questions and you’ll find him lining up delightful bottles of Minnesota distilled gins and rums, served up with a fascinating dialogue about how and where they are made.
Featuring handcrafted prohibition era style cocktails like his Minnesota Collins employing Vikre cedar gin from Duluth, Negroni, and Sazerac, McQuade is pulling from his Kentucky experience, where he fell in love with an old-time speakeasy vibe.
“I want to show people here how good a job they do building this alcohol, it takes time and just a little bit of flavor added instead of covering it up with Coke to really pull those flavors out,” he said.
Dan Snowdon, co-owner of Louise’s Place, which is one door down, was quick to welcome his new neighbor, saying a sense of camaraderie wins out over an attitude of competition.
“It’s a case of the more the merrier, adding choices downtown we all possibly benefit from that,” he said.
While McQuade echoes that sentiment, he also feels the culture of welcoming other competing businesses is not always supported.
“I think some people want things to stay the way they are, and sometimes tourists are not always seen as a bonus,” he said. “We need the locals to see us through year-round and the tourists are a bonus.”
Two Harbors Area Chamber of Commerce president, Janelle Jones said the question for the revival of old downtown has changed with the significant investment of businesses like McQuade’s, Castle Danger Brewery and a new clothing retail shop.
“We no longer have the argument of how we are going to get people downtown,” she said. “We have them here by the thousands. It’s now a question of giving them more options of what to do when they are there.”
New owners of a hardware store, restaurant, and massage studio in recent years have built onto the staple banks and other businesses already holding down the fort. An insurance company and realtor have taken over a couple spots to round things out.
“Business owners recently have taken risks and invested in our downtown to make a good diverse mix and it’s proven to be contagious,” Jones said.
Appreciating the diminishing atmosphere of yawning windows and empty storefronts that puts tourists and locals off, Jones said there is now only one unoccupied building on the downtown block and that a sense of vitality is returning to the area.
Behind the scenes, she said, there have been some big gains on clearing up obstacles to development on the waterfront, a topic that has long been discussed.
“I’m extremely optimistic that we are going to start seeing some good things happening down there,” Jones said.